The letter of the day was H at Sunday’s “Hanukkah Happening.” Bethesda Jewish Congregation livestreamed the 30-minute preschool program, which featured songs, dancing, a storybook reading and a puppet show.
“Hanukkah Happening” was an experiment to see if Zoom could attract young families to the independent congregation in Bethesda, said Maran Gluckstein, a congregant and former education director, who organized the event.
“What led to it was the sense that, if we don’t get some younger families interested in Jewish education, the whole enterprise just won’t exist,” she said. The school has gotten smaller over the years. A lot of people of the age of having young kids don’t join synagogues,” Gluckstein said.
Ever-popular Chanukah was the right time to begin reaching out to young families, she said.
Eleven families tuned in to the program that Gluckstein led with her daughter Malka Ostchega, who spoke through a lion hand puppet named Artie for most of the program.
The show kicked off with a screening of the YouTube video “Sesame Street: Letter H (Letter of the Day).” The hosts told viewers this referred to the first letter of the word “Hanukkah.”
The two then performed a puppet show that told the story of Chanukah. The program also featured a dance number, during which viewers were encouraged to spin like dreidels. And there was a reading of the children’s book “Runaway Dreidel!” The show ended with a menorah lighting.
Sandra Walter, the congregation’s board president, said the show’s goal was to bring congregants together digitally at a time when social distancing is keeping them apart.
“It’s a program for kids and it’s a program for kids at heart,” Walter said. “Whether they’re 5 years old or 15 years old, to learn to express their Judaism and learn to be an active part of Jewish celebration, in Jewish life, in their family and in our community.”
Walter said the congregation created the program because of what they consider is a lack of quality Chanukah programs for children.
“We realized more and more as we talked to parents of preschool kids that there’s a lack of programming for them,” Walter said. “And there’s a lack of Jewish programming for them. And so we feel that, given the way we approach youth education, that we really have something nice to offer in a way that will make parents feel like they’ve had a meaningful and fun 30 minutes with their kids on the Sunday morning of Chanukah.”
Rabbi Elhanan “Sunny” Schnitzer said the show is part of the congregation’s effort to ensure accessibility to Jewish life, whether in person or virtually.
“I know that with remote learning that attention spans, of both adults as well as children, are shorter than they might be in the classroom,” Schnitzer said. “So this Zoom preschool program allows us to share the Chanukah story with young children in a format that they can grasp and understand, and hopefully it’ll enhance their family celebrations.”
Gluckstein said she sees potential for similar programs about other holidays.
“Well, if it works, and people are interested and enjoy it, and there’s interest on the part of the people we’re trying to serve, for sure, we’ll do it again.”